Magnificent memoir of Zimbabwe

2007-02-01 00:00

FOR Lauren St John, brought up to believe with all her heart that she was on the right side of the Civil War waged against the black liberation fighters, Zimbabwean independence was a shattering experience. “I felt as if an earthquake had taken place in my head,” she writes in her memoir Rainbow's End.

St John was 13 when Zimbabwe gained its independence and she witnessed the “untrammelled” joy of black Zimbabweans and heard the name of Robert Mugabe for the first time. Overnight, it seemed, blacks who used to be called terrorists (or worse by white adults), became liberation fighters and she was forced to confront the reality that whites in Rhodesia were equally deserving of the title of terrorists.

This is a remarkable and moving memoir, full of astute observations about life in Rhodesia and the early days of Zimbabwean independence. Apart from being a pleasure to read, its value is that it gives a sensitive voice to a generation of young white Zimbabweans who fled the country as soon as they could, not because they couldn't relate to the political and social changes, but because their lives were literally up-ended by reality. Independent Zimbabwe became “a country where most of your truths have been shown to be lies”. As St John illustrates so well, the need to escape Zimbabwe in order to come to terms with the past was overwhelming. “I appreciated the beautiful gentle people of Zimbabwe too late,” she writes.

For most white children, Rhodesia in the sixties and seventies offered an idyllic, “seductive” lifestyle, characterised by enormous freedom, privilege, hands-off parenting and the opportunity to take childhood to its limits. At Rainbow's End - the magnificent 1 000-acre farm near Hartley (now Chegutu) and managed by St John's father - St John, like many others of her generation, lived out her childish dreams with the beautiful and dramatic Zimbabwean bush as her backdrop.

But the massacre at Rainbow's End on January 9, 1978, an incident which dramatically and significantly launches this memoir, is a grim reminder of the fear and insecurity which lurks under the surface.

Zimbabwe's birth parallels St John's own steps into adolescence and early adulthood. She has to confront the truth about her parents' volatile relationship. She becomes aware of the conservative, patriarchal foundations of the dominant white society that confine women to the roles of mother, wife and supervisor of the servants, leaving Rhodesian men in the main to focus on being “real” men - drinking, smoking and wearing their cavalier attitude towards personal safety like a badge of honour.

For all the seriousness of its subject, this book is highly entertaining, funny and poignant. It offers observations on life which will have special resonance for anyone who grew up in Zimbabwe during the seventies and early eighties: things like St John's father turning the breakfast nook into a bar; the author's infatuation with Olivia Newton John and the movie Grease; the endless hours spent waiting for parents to have “one last drink” at the club; the unbearable kindness and fortitude of black servants - this is the stuff out of which young lives were moulded. St John has used it to magnificent effect.

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